As the writer of a nonreligious blog and a soon-to-be-published book on the damage religion has done to America’s secular founding promise, I tend to see much of the nation’s life in religious, or more precisely irreligious, terms.
Forgive me, but I encountered that nexus again Saturday in a New York Times column by the inimitably balanced reporter and columnist Nicholas Kristof. The headline and subhead summarized his theme — “Fox News? More Like Trump’s Impeachment Shield: Nixon lacked the cable network’s advantage, but are its viewers misled?”
I view the reality-corrupting influence of Fox News’ prime-time blowhards along with organized Christianity’s televangelical barkers as emerging slime-dripping from the same fact-averse, prejudicial swamp of wrong information and misinformation. The net result is a toxic kind of hostile ignorance.
It might not be so bad, but there can be actual dire consequences to the true believers of Fox News on the one hand, as Kristof writes, and of adherents of supernatural religion, as I suggest.
For example, Kristof recalled that during the 2009-2010 swine-flu epidemic conservative pundits of right-wing media, including Fox News, condemned “as a nefarious plot” the Obama administration’s urging of citizens to get vaccinated. Glenn Beck, then a Fox News star, told his viewers that he would do “the exact opposite” of what Obama recommended.
In the end, Democrats were 50 percent more likely to get vaccinated than Republicans (Fox news viewers are vastly Republican), and approximately 18,000 people died in the flu epidemic, according to data reported in the Journal of Health, Politics and Law, Kristof reported. The United States Politics and Policy (USAPP) blog reported in a post that conservative anti-vax sentiment is a result of the Republicans’ — and fundamentalist Christians’— much greater distrust of science and government than Democrats.
“[S]o it seems logical that some died because they believe Fox News,” Kristof wrote.
Vaccinations are an appropriate symbol of the dangers of ignorance and misunderstanding in the current American political milieu, as so-called anti-vaxxers are predominantly fundamentalist Christian Republicans.
But the driving catalyst for Kristof’s column was the disconnect between what was actually happening at the first congressional impeachment hearing against President Trump this past week and what Fox News viewers and other consumers of conservative news media were learning about it.
The first two witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee led by Rep. Adam Schiff — U.S. Ukraine Ambassador William Taylor and senior State Department official George P. Kent — both clearly testified that extra-governmental bad actors appeared to have orchestrated a smear campaign at the behest of President Trump to mysteriously undermine then-Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch so she could be removed and replaced. The witnesses said the president’s team had for months been trying to manipulate and force the new Ukrainian president into publicly announcing and starting a bogus investigation into who was then believed his prime 2020 rival, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (whose son had been employed by a Ukrainian company). It appears Yovanovitch, a person of reputed rock-ribbed integrity, would never have gone along with such a scheme (and said so in her hearing days later).
In the real world, information such as what emerged from the hearing would be considered damning for a president, and was reported as such by virtually every mainstream news outlet, except for Fox.
Fox misrepresented the stunning event to its viewers as “a lousy day for the corrupt, do-nothing-for-three-years radical extreme socialist Democrats.”
“That is, shall we say, a quixotic interpretation,” Kristof wrote. By “quixotic,” he meant, kindly, “exceedingly unrealistic.” In fact, it was an invention.
As the president abruptly became unhinged, attacking Ambassador Taylor in a tweet, it’s pretty clear he knew this was not a “lousy day for Democrats.”
In another example of how right-wing media “cocoon” does a disservice to its aficionados, Kristof noted his personal experience being embedded with American troops during the 2003 Iraq War. Fox News at the time was telling its viewers that U.S. soldiers “would be welcomed with flowers and that the war would pay for itself.”
“Early in the invasion … I spent a scary, violent day with U.S. troops, and that night we watched a feed of Fox News — and our jaws dropped as commentators ridiculed critics of the invasion and blithely insisted that Iraqis were welcoming us as heroes. The troops and I looked at each other in astonishment.”
Of course, the reality was more the opposite.
Fox News is infotainment with only a semblance of balanced news shouted out in prime time as full-on Trump propaganda. The cable network may be entertaining for its conservative true believers, but its not informative. A 2012 Fairleigh Dickinson University study found that watching Fox News “had a negative impact on people’s current events knowledge.”
The study revealed that regular Fox News watchers actually knew less about both domestic and international events and issues than those who watched no news at all. Even people who only got their news from political comedy shows like “The Daily Show” score higher in current-event knowledge that Fox Newsies, the study noted.
Unsurprisingly, particularly well-informed were National Public Radio listeners. NPR is famous for its balanced, authoritative and broad news reporting.
The take-away from all this is something I’ve long said, what you don’t know can hurt you a lot more than what you do know.
Fox News, with its emphasis on personal grievance, entertainment and shock value, leaves its viewers ill-equipped to deal with what’s really happening in the country except to be really angry about it, whatever it is.
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